NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

A professional counterpart of mine was fond of explaining his philosophy of management: “Workers respect what managers inspect.”

He was wrong. The only emotions his workers felt were fear and loathing. Nevertheless those sentiments will get you a form of compliance — for a while.

There’s not much different in the way various Australian governments have been trying to to manage us, the people, in the pandemic.  It has been a consistently solid mix of patronage and punishment.

This is not surprising. Conventional corporate management theory — predominant since corporations became a thing, and turbo-charged once “human resources” had been elevated to a science — has always dictated that people cannot be trusted to behave otherwise than self-interestedly unless appropriately motivated by reward and consequences.

Because the political class and the modern public service are indistinguishable from the management tier of private enterprise (as they comprise the same people moving seamlessly back and forth), quite naturally the underlying Hobbesian assumption — that we are all, at heart, dickheads — has permeated policy making and, more importantly, how government behaves on the rare occasions when it is forced to actually do something.

COVID-19 is one of those occasions, although Prime Minister Scott Morrison is proving adept at exploiting the quirks of our federal system to shove almost all the burden of action on to the states.

Premiers manage by instinct and appetite

The state premiers are, to a man and woman, managerial by instinct and appetite. They manage us non-stop, alternately congratulating us for being good girls and boys by “following the rules” and threatening us with ever-expanding penal consequences if we don’t keep it up.

Like perpetually exasperated parents, our leaders wag their fingers and pat our heads. Every now and then Morrison comes in over the top for some performative uber-dadding, as when he berated us for panic-buying (“Stop it!”) or for not caring as much about the lives of old people as he does.  

There’s nothing malign or intentionally divisive about this aspect of the governmental approach to surviving COVID-19 (putting aside Morrison’s rank cynicism). It simply marks the limits of the imaginations of the people we’ve placed in charge, and they reflect the basic philosophy of capitalism.

The funny thing, though, is that we have always known the prevailing theory of what motivates people to act in their collective interest is completely wrong.  

It is not how functional families and relationships operate, nor how successful sports teams, ensembles, campaigns or movements are organised.

Every exemplar of communal achievement demonstrates over and over again that it is neither the desire for material reward nor the fear of punishment that causes people to work together for the common good.

We are, fundamentally, social beings

Sure the argument has been running since the enlightenment as to whether we are inherently good beings subject to evil temptation, or by nature only interested in communal action when it also serves ourselves. But there’s no getting away from the simple truth that we are social beings.

Nevertheless it was assumed from the outset of COVID-19 that the only way to get a whole population to act in its collective interest was by coercion.

We have been living under the extraordinarily draconian legal structures of the Biosecurity Act 2015 and its state counterparts ever since.

It’s a given that most of the population would have complied with public health advice and the necessary measures to mitigate the risk regardless. It’s also a given that a small minority would not, and that COVID-19 will always find the weak spot.

Can you hold a virus at bay from 25 million people indefinitely by force of law? You can get people to comply in the short term with almost any set of rules by threatening them. 

History, however, offers no examples of long-term success for that strategy (appreciating that success and compliance are not the same thing).

Much as our leaders persist in wishing, this is not a short-term problem and there is no normal to which we will return. They cannot coerce us forever without our society beginning to fracture along the fault lines that existed before COVID brought the ceiling down.

What our governments are doing is keeping us in a state of suspended fear, corralling us with offers of praise and warnings of punishment. What they are failing to do is to see the opportunity that COVID presents: a better society in every way.

True leadership would point us in that direction and motivate us to take the hits of today in the common cause of tomorrow.

However, as we do not have leaders who can — or dare to — imagine, we’ll plough on, being managed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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